Rental Car Review: 2013 Toyota Prius
Posted on August 19, 2013
By: Scott Hobart, Contributing Editor
There’s a certain sort of traveler that makes it a point to jump into the local culture; do as the Romans do. When it comes to getting around on vacation, this is the traveler who pedals on two wheels around Amsterdam or hops on a Vespa around Rome.
Well, I can’t say that I’m that dedicated to soaking in the local culture. But on a recent trip with my wife to the San Francisco Bay Area and wine country, our rental agency made it easy by serving up a 2013 Toyota Prius.
Is there any more perfect car to explore Northern California than the Prius? The land of eco-consciousness, sustainability, and, well, $4.00+ gas? As I merged on the highway, pointing due north towards the Bay Bridge, my suspicions were confirmed; the Prius appeared to be a very popular choice. So are Californians on to something with the Prius? Is there something more than the one-trick MPG maximizing pony of my preconceptions? I had the car for 4 days to find out.
The Prius’s wind-cheating shape certainly cuts a distinctive profile, no surprises there. What’s surprising, however, is how well these slick lines translate to practical usability. The hatch, for example, covers a load floor lower than SUVs, but offers vastly easier grocery egress than your traditional trunk. Then there’s the back seat: Sure, your author’s 6’3” frame just barely fits under the roof, but I’ve found the same under most modern mid-sized cars these days. Visibility was easy all around, and the large doors made it easy to load up my camera gear and bottles of wine collected around Napa Valley. In sum, Toyota engineers did not compromise practicality for those last few MPG.
Readers will note car ads and reviews touting ‘soft touch’ interiors. Well this interior isn’t one of them. But you know what, it doesn’t matter; who spends their time poking the dashboard? While the plastics are hard, the quality is high and everything is put together with precision.
What’s most notable about the interior, however, is the unusual dual level dashboard and extra displays. Toyota wanted you to know you’re not in a conventional car. No, you’re in the car of the future. The top display shows speed, instantaneous MPG, a configurable display that shows either a graph of fuel consumption over time, or a much more useful gauge that tells you how fuel-sippingly you’re driving. While there’s a bit of theater involved to play-up the hybrid powertrain, again Toyota engineers didn’t sacrifice usability. Renting a car is a great test of this; setting the radio, heating and cooling, and other secondary controls were intuitive to this first time Prius driver.
You know that Prius driver who merges slowly, or sits in a 55mph zone at…55mph? It’s actually not their fault. Prius changes behavior. That’s right; through constant feedback on how your driving habits are affecting fuel economy, and a powertrain that is reluctant to hustle, you really do end up adjusting your driving style towards higher MPGs.
This isn’t to say it’s dangerously slow. Mat the accelerator and both the electric motor and the gas engine collaborate to move the Prius out of the way of traffic. However, in general you’ll find yourself driving like Miss Daisy’s chauffer; easy does it. It also doesn’t help that the steering is finger-tip light, with just about zero feel for the road. Yes, Prius engineers wanted you to help get them those headline MPGs, and the overall experiences guides you to that sedate driving style.
Cruising at speed on Route 80 East toward Napa and there’s further evidence of Toyota engineer’s laser focus on maximizing mileage; tire noise. There’s no wind noise or engine noise, just lots of tire noise. Would it really have hurt MPGs that much to install 50 pounds of sound deadening material around the wheel wells?
Ultimately, that laser focus on maximizing fuel economy does pay off; I returned the Prius to the rental agency with about 400 miles added to the odometer and a trip fuel economy of 51mpg.
To put that into dollars and cents, had I opted for the other choice on offer from the rental agency, that Dodge Charger would have cost about $32 more for my 4-day trip. In my eyes, that’s a free bottle of Chardonnay to enjoy. For my readers, I leave it to you to figure out if such fuel economy pays off.
In sum, Californians are on to something with the Prius; extremely practical space utilization, screwed together well, and a good, if unexciting drive. Firm up the steering, add some sound deadening, and get rid of the awful truck-like back-up beeping, and the Prius would be an exceptionally well-rounded car. Perhaps Toyota keeps these annoyances in place to keep consumers interested in upgrading to a Camry or Avalon hybrid.
Having lived with the Prius for 4 days around Wine Country, I appreciate why it has sold very well in its environment. I left California with a new appreciation of the car and its capabilities. And now, it’s time to plan my next vacation, where I’ll also do my best to find the best car for the experience. Who knows, perhaps I’ll plan to visit the Jersey Shore, where I will do everything I can to make sure my rental is a Ford Mustang…